The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
When the Ontario Good Roads Association met in 1999 for its annual convention, the downloading of provincial highways to local municipalities was surely a major topic of discussion.
The construction of the provincial highway network, with high standards of construction and consistent maintenance, occupied the energies of a generation of activists. The loss of much of the network could result in a patchwork system, as well as great additional burdens on property taxes.
Ontario’s provincial highway system resulted from the pressures of these two facts: costs of highway improvements in the First World War era fell unevenly on some municipalities, and the growing hordes of motorists complained bitterly about inconsistent maintenance on important roads.
Provincial aid to roads goes back before Confederation and into the 18th century. Assistance became a major political issue in areas settled in the 1840s and 1850s, before railways became the principal transportation technology.
In Wellington County, all the important centres had railway connections by the mid 1870s, and the main gravel roads, which had once been the arteries, served only local needs. Wellington County had jurisdiction over many of these routes, but no one wanted to pay for more than basic maintenance.
By the 1890s the road system in Wellington had declined drastically. The situation was similar in most counties in Ontario. Political leaders in the rural areas established the Ontario Good Roads Association in 1894 to lobby for provincial aid for roads. These lobbying efforts soon succeeded.
Wellington County took advantage of the first major measures: a fund for road grants in 1901, and a program to underwrite a third of the cost of county road work in 1905.
Motor cars were not yet a big factor in the road system. By modern standards, traffic was minimal. A 1913 count on the Fergus-Guelph road, for example, showed daily traffic at about 50 wagons and five motor cars. Within a couple of years the proportion of motor car traffic exploded beyond the 10% indicated in the 1913 survey. The provincial government raked in huge sums from vehicle registration and the tax on fuel.
Faced with rising road costs, several municipalities considered local registration fees or local gas taxes. As a more sensible alternative, the provincial government brought in revenue sharing programs based on the subsidy system of 1905.
The Good Roads Associa-tion found new lobbying partners in the Ontario Motor League and the Canadian Automobile Association, which had chapters in Guelph, Elora, Fergus and Mount Forest.
In 1915 the provincial government established the Department of Public Highways. With it came a new class of highway: the Provincial County Roads. These were major routes that the province was willing to fund at a 40% subsidy, providing the work was done to provincial standards. Under the new rules, Wellington recovered from the province about $19,000 of its minuscule $70,000 road budget in 1916.
From this time on, there were annual changes in legislation. The Provincial Highway Act of 1917 established a provincially-funded highway from Windsor to the Quebec border, with future additions. At the same time, funding for the Provincial County roads went to 60%.
Due to the pressures of war, postwar inflation, and the torpor of William Hearst’s government, little was done in the next two years beyond the main cross-province route, which eventually became Highway 2.
Locally, the chief impact was the designation of the route from Puslinch to Guelph, Fergus, Arthur and Mount Forest as Provincial County Road 13, which was done in 1918. This was part of a route from Hamilton to Owen Sound.
A Highways Department engineer inspected the road in September of 1918 and his report makes interesting reading. He noted that the section through Wellington was surfaced with gravel and broken stone, and showed no evidence of recent work. Some sections featured deep ruts, and earth had generally built up on the shoulders, causing water to puddle on the roadway. No work appeared to have been done on ditches and drainage for years.
Surprisingly, the Motor League handbook published the same year describes this route as “a good gravel road.” We can only wonder at the horrors that were encountered on the sideroads.
Major work on Road 13 began in 1918, with a new $10,000 concrete bridge over the Irvine north of Fergus, and gravel added to several sections. With provincial funding, expenditures on this route rose from $17,000 in 1918 to $25,000 in 1919.
Meanwhile, county council endorsed a proposal for a provincial highway from Toronto to Guelph and Kitchener, and petitioned to have the old Saugeen Road, through Elora to Teviotdale and Clifford, made a Provincial County road.
Ontario’s road system received a boost in 1919 with the election of the United Farmers of Ontario.
The new MPPs were thoroughly familiar with the deficiencies of Ontario’s roads and the lobbying over the previous quarter century. The Drury government picked up the studies that had been lingering in Hearst’s office, and quickly announced a program for 1,800 miles of provincial highways to crisscross the province and provide access to every county town.
In the fall of 1919 the Drury government authorized two more Provincial County Roads in Wellington: the Saugeen Road from Marden to Lake Huron (Number 68), and the north-south road through Hillsburgh (Number 78). This brought the total in Wellington up to 95 miles.
The 1920 county council, led by Warden John Campbell of Mount Forest, undertook major changes to the way Wellington dealt with road issues. Campbell told council there was a growing demand for roads and despite rising costs in the postwar economy, expenditures must be made. He pledged “… strictest economy consistent with efficient public service. The present system of piecemeal construction is entirely too slow … and not obtaining the best results for the money expended.”
Campbell urged his council to plan the county road system as feeders for the coming provincial highways. He initiated a program of equipment purchases: a rock crusher, small asphalt plant, three powered graders, eight horse-drawn graders, and nine horse-drawn snow plows in 1920. A special committee revised the way road expenditures were allocated.
The Ontario government took over Provincial County Road 13 late in 1920, and designated the Toronto-Guelph-Kitchener route a provincial highway in April 1921. These became, respectively, Highways 6 and 7. The county had to cover 30% of the cost of provincial highways, but this requirement disappeared with the Highways Act of 1926.
There were additions to the Provincial County mileage in Wellington in the early 1920s: the Guelph-Hespeler Road, Arthur to Orangeville, Fergus to Elora and Winterbourne, and Teviotdale northwest to the county boundary. The latter was soon added to the provincial highway system, as an extension of the route westward from Arthur, and was designated Highway 9. With the designation of Highways 6, 7 and 9, there were no further additions to the provincial highways of Wellington until the late 1930s.
The government of Howard Ferguson continued Drury’s program of improvements to the provincial roads, though at a reduced level. There was much work in Wellington.
Highway 6 received a concrete pavement, at a cost of about $40,000 per mile (equal to two or three million in current dollars). As well as paving, there were curves to realign on Highway 7, and drainage work everywhere.
This work continued into the years of the George Henry government, which provided funding for the elimination in 1933 of the last stretches of gravelled provincial highways in Wellington: a section of Highway 6 above Cumnock, and the Arthur-Orangeville Road, which continued Highway 9 east of Arthur.
When he was elected in 1934, Mitch Hepburn cut expenditures on highways to the bone. Despite depression conditions, motor car registrations and gas tax revenues continued to grow.
With the books showing a provincial surplus in 1936, pressure for road improvements grew. Tim McQuesten, the Hamilton millionaire who was Minister of Highways, began to give positive signals to petitioners for new highways. In 1937 he sent out engineers to make surveys of new routes. Three were approved in Wellington: Highway 23, west from Teviotdale to Palmerston and Listowel; Highway 89 linking Palmerston and Harriston; and Highway 24, the old Eramosa Road, which McQuesten saw as an important link between Highways 6 and 7 at Guelph and Highway 10.
There were a number of other proposals in 1937. The Marden-Elora-Teviotdale road topped the list – it had almost been taken over by the province in 1921. The Kitchener Board of Trade favoured routes from Elmira through Drayton to Arthur, and another through Moorefield to Palmerston. Engineers surveyed a route from Elmira to Alma to Teviotdale. This work aroused the normally sedate editor of the Drayton Advocate, who denounced it because it “bypassed the important villages of Drayton and Moorefield in favour of the moribund hamlets of Alma and Rothsay.”
The province did not assume any of these routes. Internal squabbling in the Hepburn cabinet was one factor. McQuesten told Wellington County council that Wellington had its full share of provincial highways. In 1938 expenditures on provincial highways began another decline, and much of the available money went into the Queen Elizabeth Way. The death of George McQuibban, the influential MPP for North Wellington, left the county without its best lobbyist at Queen’s Park.
The original philosophy of the provincial highway system was to provide through routes, built to a high standard, for heavily travelled roads between major centres.
Maintaining and improving this system will be a continuing challenge for county council, not only with costs, but with the connections to adjoining jurisdictions.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 8, 1999.